A careful writer stalks the truth about Scientology

Charles Mcgrath / New York Times News Service /


Published Jan 6, 2013 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

“Going Clear: Scientology, Celebrity, and the Prison of Belief” by Lawrence Wright (Knopf)

AUSTIN, Texas — The writer Lawrence Wright doesn’t seem at all the sort of person you’d find in public wearing a black cowboy shirt emblazoned with big white buffaloes. He’s shy, soft-spoken, a little professorial.

But as if he didn’t have enough to do, besides working on three plays simultaneously and getting ready to publish a new book in two weeks, Wright has been taking piano lessons with Floyd Domino, the two-time Grammy winner, and on a recent Saturday, in his buffalo shirt, he played in a concert at the Victory Grill here with the band WhoDo. Wright was at the keyboard, and sang solo on “Sixty-Minute Man” and the Count Basie tune “She’s Funny That Way.” Not bad for a bookworm.

“I decided a while ago that I would only do things that are really important or really fun,” Wright said. “This is really fun.”

More fun, probably, than dealing with lawyers. His new book, “Going Clear: Scientology, Celebrity, and the Prison of Belief” (Knopf) is about the famously litigious Church of Scientology, and he said he has received innumerable threatening letters from lawyers representing the church or some of the celebrities who belong to it. (Transworld, Wright’s British publisher, recently canceled its plans to publish “Going Clear,” though a spokeswoman insisted that the decision was not made in response to threats from the church.)

The book — which recounts the history of Scientology through the interwoven stories of key figures like L. Ron Hubbard, the religion’s founder, and celebrity Scientologists like John Travolta and Tom Cruise — claims among other things that the church has virtually imprisoned some of its members, threatening blackmail if they try to leave, and that its current leader, David Miscavige, has physically abused some of his underlings.

The book won’t do anything to enhance the image of Scientology, already diminished by Janet Reitman’s 2011 book, “Inside Scientology: The History of the World’s Most Secretive Religion.”

In a statement, Karin Pouw, a Scientology spokeswoman, said Wright and his publisher refused to provide a copy of the book in advance and “showed little interest in receiving input” from the church. “The portions you cite from the book are preposterous lies,” she said, adding that “the allegation about Mr. Miscavige is false and defamatory.”

But Wright insists that he did not set out to write an expose.

“Why would I bother to do that?” he said. “Scientology is probably the most stigmatized religion in America already. But I’m fascinated by it and by what drives people to Scientology, especially given its image.”

He added: “There are many countries where you can only believe more or you can believe less. But in the United States we have this incredible smorgasbord, and it really interests me why people are drawn to one faith rather than another, especially to a system of belief that to an outsider seems absurd or dangerous.”

Wright, whose previous book, “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaida and the Road to 9/11,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007, is no stranger to writing about secretive organizations.

In the case of Scientology, he said, he had been looking for what he calls a “donkey” — a character strong and sympathetic enough to carry a complicated story.

“I don’t mean it in a disparaging way,” he explained. “A donkey is a very useful beast of burden.”

In 2010 he finally found one in Paul Haggis, the winner of back-to-back Oscars for “Million Dollar Baby,” which he wrote, and “Crash,” which he wrote and directed, who defected from Scientology in 2009, after 34 years in the church, during which he rose to one of its highest ranks.

In 2011, Wright published a profile of Haggis in The New Yorker, and in the course of the fact-checking process Tommy Davis, the international spokesman for Scientology, did Wright an unwitting favor. He showed up in The New Yorker offices with four lawyers and 47 white binders full of material about the church.

“I suppose the idea was to drown me in information,” Wright recalled, “but it was like trying to pour water on a fish. I looked on those binders with a feeling of absolute joy.”

In all, Wright spoke to some 200 current and former Scientologists, only a few of whom insisted on anonymity. He started with Haggis, he said, and one name led to another. It helped that, starting in 2009, a number of high-ranking officials had broken from the church and began talking to the St. Petersburg Times, now called the Tampa Bay Times. (The spiritual headquarters of Scientology is in nearby Clearwater, Fla.)

“The church for decades has been mopping up as much information as they can,” Wright said. “That’s why there are so few photographs in the book. They’ve also silenced people through nondisclosure agreements and through intimidation. But this has not been a perfect job on the part of the church.

“There are a lot of people out there who were very high up in the church and know a lot about it who have become outspoken. I’m very lucky to come along at a time when a lot of these people are ready to talk.”